Economics

Economics

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love For-Profit Medicine

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flying cadeuciiWhen I started medical school, my South Asian immigrant parents quietly hoped I would find my way to cardiology or another glamorous specialty. Instead, I spent a decade — first as a medical student, then as an intern and resident in internal medicine — focused on advancing the right to health among poor people and others with little access to quality health care.

Through high-impact nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, and grassroots organizing in urban communities and among health professionals, I was part of an incredible community focused on making American medicine better, safer, and affordable to all.

So when it came time for me to find a “real job” after my residency, I assumed it would be in a nonprofit organization with a laser-like focus on transforming underserved health. Imagine my astonishment, then, to discover my life’s work in Iora Health — a private sector, venture-backed, for-profit primary care startup.

Profit and medicine

Critics have said that for-profit medicine makes money by finding ways to avoid caring for sick people “in their time of greatest need.” It’s also been pointed out that the Hippocratic oath doesn’t mention “money, financing, or making a profit.”

God and Statins

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flying cadeuciiOf life’s two certainties, death and cataracts, it seems statins defer one and prompt the other, although not necessarily in the same person. If you blindly love life you may be blinded by your love for life.

In the HOPE-3 trial, ethnically diverse people without cardiovascular disease were randomized to 10 mg of rosuvastatin daily and placebo. The treatment group had fewer primary events – death from myocardial infarction (MI), non-fatal myocardial infarctions, and non-fatal stroke. For roughly ten MIs averted there were seven excess cataracts. Peter may be blinded without being saved. Paul may be saved without being blinded. And then there is Rajeev who may be blinded and saved. But the very nature of primary prevention is that you don’t know you’re Peter, Paul or Rajeev. So everyone is grateful to statins. Not even God of the Old Testament had such unconditional deference.

Once you’re taking statins there is no way to disprove that any and every breath you draw is because of statins. Statins enjoy the metaphysical carapace, the immunity from falsification, which not even God enjoys. At least you can experiment with God. Don’t pray for a week and see if you’re still alive- you know if God really cares about prayer-adherence. Even if you die at age 55 on statins, you can never disprove that you wouldn’t have died sooner if you weren’t taking statins.

The Transparency Trap

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flying cadeuciiOn a recent shift in the Emergency Department, a resident boasted to me that she had convinced a patient to have an MRI done after discharge, rather than in the hospital. She was proud of this achievement because MRIs cost much more in the hospital than they do elsewhere – sometimes thousands of dollars more. To advocates of “cost-conscious care,” a new movement in medical education that aims to instill in young doctors a sense of responsibility for the financial consequences of their decisions, this story seems to belong in the ‘win’ column.

But this story also raises troubling questions: Why wasn’t the resident more concerned about how the hospital’s charging practices were leading her to delay care for her patient? What about the prolonged anxiety the patient would suffer? What about the extra day of work she would have to miss? And most importantly, why does an MRI cost thousands of dollars more in the hospital than it does across the street?

Like many doctors, she had fallen into the ‘transparency trap.’ This phenomenon is an unintended consequence of price transparency efforts that have come in response to patients and doctors being kept in the dark for decades about the prices of common services. Unfortunately, as the CEO of one large hospital put it, “the vast majority of [prices] have no relation to anything, and certainly not to cost.” In fact, studies have shown that in a functional market, MRIs would cost somewhere around $250, and we wouldn’t be nearly as concerned about doing too many of them.

The Narrowing of the Network

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The concept of restrictive (oh let’s call them euphemistically “narrowed”) networks has for decades been the third rail of healthcare. Ask Hillary Clinton, who put her foot on that third rail in the 1990’s while attempting to reform healthcare. In the same vein, HMOs in the 90’s also tried to restrict networks, resulting in vicious backlashes.

One of those backlashes was the enactment in many states of so-called “any willing provider” or “freedom of choice” legislation. At last look, some 27 states still have a form of such legislation on their books. Most credible studies show that such laws increase the cost of healthcare.

Moreover, the ability of insurers to remove physicians from their network in many states is severely restricted by so called “fair hearing” legislation that makes the pain of achieving physician expulsion worse than the pain of leaving under performing physicians in network.

We understand that when a physician cries “foul” against an insurer, public sentiment will favor the physician, and over the years, it certainly has been  reflected in this and other legislative attempts to tie insurers’ hands.  After all, no one wants to go to the prom with a health insurer.

As a result of this and other phenomina, there has been the highly chronicled swoop toward mediocrity in the delivery of healthcare in the United States. And insurers have certainly contributed here. Up to now, insurers have paid physicians using the fee for service payment method. This method merely requires physicians to demonstrate that they performed a function, at which point they are paid at an amount that does not vary regardless of quality or outcome. This is a completely volume driven environment with predictable results.

Retail Clinics Raise Medical Spending: So What?

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flying cadeuciiNew research published in Health Affairs finds that retail clinics don’t save money. Many health policy analysts had hoped that retail clinics would reduce medical spending by replacing more costly physician office visits. The article did confirm that retail clinics are less expensive than traditional physician visits for the same service. Yet retail clinic use was associated with an increase in medical spending of $14 per year by those who used them. The $14 per person-year increase was not a complete picture, however, because the study did not compare inpatient spending or prescription drug use.

The researchers looked at Aetna insurance claims for 11 low-acuity conditions to see if people were substituting cheaper retail clinic visits for more costly doctor visits. What they found was that patients tend to visit a retail clinic when they might otherwise forgo care. In other words, patients were adding visits for conditions that would have cleared up on their own rather than necessarily substituting cheaper visits for higher cost visits. Traffic at retail clinics tends to peak during off hours (evening and weekends) when physician offices are closed.

The research was reported by Kaiser Health News and also ran in MedCity News, where I found some of the comments especially interesting. One commenter asked if changing the term “utilization” to “engagement” might make a difference, as in:“clinics increase health ‘engagement’ to the tune of about $14/person.” Increasing patient engagement sounds like a positive benefit rather than the negative connotation of utilization.

As an economist, my knee jerk reaction is patients may want to visit a retail clinic when their traditional source of care is not available. They may be willing to spend a little extra in cost-sharing to take care of a medical need rather than suffer through it.

Cancer and Moonshot Economics

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The Obama Administration’s cancer “moonshot” initiative, announced in January and now being debated in Congress, comes at a time of significant advances in cancer treatment and a spurt of cultural attention to the disease.

A batch of new immunotherapy drugs approved in the last few years, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo and Merck’s Keytruda, are being widely touted as breakthrough medicines—and aggressively advertised to both doctors and the public.  Jimmy Carter’s unexpected remission from melanoma that had spread to his liver and brain is attributed to Keytruda.

At the same time, a cancer memoir (When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi) tops The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.  The Death of Cancer by Dr. Vincent DeVita, a former director of the National Cancer Institute, has also garnered positive reviews and wide attention for its critical assessment of today’s cancer research establishment.

Before these two books, John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars—the touching story of two teens with cancer—was widely acclaimed and read, especially after it was made into a blockbuster movie in 2014.

The administration’s initiative comes at a significant time for me personally, too.  My brother, 70, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer 10 months ago.  Unlike Jimmy Carter, one of the new immunotherapy drugs (Opdivo) did not defeat his cancer.  He continues to fight for his life.  As with so many families, cancer has stalked ours.  My sister died of colon cancer in 2006, age 54.  My mother died of lung cancer in 1985, at 65.  Like anyone over age 60, I’ve seen friends suffer and succumb, their lives cut short.  And I’ve battled two cancers myself, melanoma (localized) and a salivary gland tumor.

What Trump’s Plan to Negotiate With Pharma Should Tell Us

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Donald Trump’s proposal to allow the federal Medicare program to negotiate prices with drug companies should be a wake-up call for the pharmaceutical industry.

Trump is leading in the polls for the Republican nomination and is even drawing the support of Tea Party conservatives who, just a year or two ago, never would have supported a candidate endorsing such strong government intervention into a private-sector industry.

Characteristically, Trump didn’t give a lot of detail about his plans. He claimed $300 billion in savings per year (about 10 times more than is realistic). But that doesn’t matter. If the leading GOP presidential candidate—a man who has proved masterful at reading the public mood and playing to it—has signed on to this idea, it proves that change has come.

I know that many veterans of the pharmaceutical industry think they have seen this horror movie before and know how it ends. There have been several past public furors over the price of prescription drugs, and each one gradually faded without major disruption for drugmakers. But this time feels different.

Can the Exchanges Be Saved?

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Michael Turpin 1“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” —William Arthur Ward

Looking confidently past the skeletons of drowned state and federal healthcare experiments, America’s health insurance exchanges set sail in January 2014. Disregarding the rough seas ahead, healthcare reform pundits and legislators applauded the Affordable Care Act’s signature public expansion vehicle as an impenetrable solution for achieving affordable coverage and competition.

Less than two years later, the exchanges are taking on water.

In November, United Healthcare lowered earnings projections, a move driven primarily by its hesitancy to commit to enrolling new exchange members until risks are better understood. While other insurers were quick to reassure investors that the public exchange market remains a viable means for organic growth, a low-pressure system of doubt is already building over the nascent public exchanges.

Initial enrollment projections for 2016 are fewer than 10 million members—about half of the 20 million target estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. In their rush to expand coverage to the uninsured and under insured, many public officials and industry neophytes failed to consult with those who have firsthand experience with the difficulties of underwriting those who are obtaining insurance for the first time.

FAST FOCUS 

Enrollment projections for 2016 are fewer than 10 million members—about half the Congressional Budget Office target of 20 million.
The rush to participate in public exchanges has attracted inexperienced players seeking a piece of a $300 billion premium opportunity.
Investors want desperately to believe healthcare is ripe for transformational disruption.

There Is Nothing Free About the Health Care Free Market

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Nortin Hadler“Universal Health Care”, “Single Payer”, “National Health Insurance”, “Socialized Medicine” are all semiotics symbolizing the subjugation of physician and of patient autonomy to government control for the sake of the common good. This is not sophistry. Max Weber was a Prussian political philosopher who laid the foundation for modern sociology with such books as The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (1920, English translation 1947) in which he proclaimed, “Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge. This is the feature of it which makes it specifically rational.” (p. 339).

However, Weber knew that the goal of a rational bureaucracy was more often elusive than realized, if it is ever realized for long. As Karl Marx observed in a mid-19th C critique of Hegelian political philosophy, “The bureaucracy takes itself to be the ultimate purpose of the state.” That observation is mirrored in a televised speech delivered by Ronald Reagan on October 27, 1964, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!”

The upshot is that society has an inherent love-hate relationship with bureaucracy. As I discuss in Citizen Patient, till the end of the 20th Century American medicine contained and controlled its own bureaucracy and was willing to downplay such short-comings as inequities in the delivery and quality of care. Even the legislating of a Medicare bureaucracy had little impact on the medical hegemony; the legislation delegated clinical indications and fees to medicine’s own bureaucracy and much else that is costly to the marketplace. American medicine remained secure in its autonomy. Meanwhile, elsewhere, in nearly all similarly “advanced” countries, the will to tackle inequities in the distribution and quality of care and in cost-effectiveness had come to predominate by early in the 20th C. These countries sought a solution in the evolution of governmental bureaucracies. Several of these bureaucracies, these national health insurance schemes, remain examples of Weber’s rationality. Several of the national health insurance schemes, such as in the United Kingdom and France, are fraying.

Will the Pharmaceutical Industry Learn From Past Mistakes?

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Soeren MattkeAwash in negative headlines, public condemnation and government scrutiny, the pharmaceutical industry faces a public relations problem that, left untreated, could bring new regulations or sanctions either from governments or the courts. At the same time, though, the recent scandals over price gouging could offer an opportunity for responsible, research-based companies to distance themselves from the profiteers.

The industry has come under fire at a time of unprecedented innovation. As a physician who trained in the 1990s, I am in awe of the recent breakthroughs. Immuno-oncology drugs like Keytruda (pembrolizumab) and Opdivo (nivolumab) offer hope for patients with previously untreatable cancers. Entresto (sacubitril/valsartan) – the first novel treatment in over a decade for congestive heart failure, a condition deadlier than most cancers – was approved this year. There is a cure for many forms of Hepatitis C with Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) and vaccines for dengue fever and maybe even malaria may become available soon. More patients in developing countries than expected have access to antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS and companies are devoting resources to achieving the same for the new scourge of noncommunicable diseases.

At the same time, some in the industry have been seeking to tackle the image problems. Overeager sales representatives are being reined in. Financial ties to physicians and clinical trial data are being disclosed. The main industry bodies in the United States, PhRMA and BIO, disowned Turing Pharmaceuticals, the company behind the notorious 5,000 percent price increase for Daraprim, a critical drug for certain infections in immunocompromised patients.